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Moonlight on the Ganga
By Claire Krulikowski
DayBue Publishing InkCopyright © 2006 Claire Krulikowski
All rights reserved.
Awaking to the River
"How magnificent she is when she flows in the valley of Rishikesh! She has a blue colour like that of the ocean. The water is extremely clear and sweet. Rich people from the plains get water from Rishikesh. It is taken in big copper vessels to far-off places in India."
— Sri Swami Sivananda from [Mother Ganges
My first sleepy-eyed morning in Rishikesh, I drink in my maiden view of the Ganga over the scalding mouth of a tall, tin cup of steaming hot Rishikesh coffee. The swift and frothy pewter river sweeping fast past me reflects the sky's overcast chill, and the instant coffee frothed with many ounces of boiled milk and sugar and something else unknown reflects nothing I've ever tasted before.
My friends and I have stumbled through the dawning day's darkness along cobble-bricked streets, weaving past bone-thin cows and their droppings, jumping over puddles of congealed water, dodging the splashed contents tossed from buckets we hope contain cleansing water for the streets rather than personal refuse from the previous evening. Clumps of cloth bundled in the street corners stir, revealing figures of bearded men slowly rising from their slumbers. There's an eerie pall of gray-brown sheathing every sight, wrapping me in the puzzling sensation of having stepped onto a movie set. Certainly this can't be real and I am not here!
We're heading to this particular chai (tea) shop at the suggestion of an American woman we met upon our late arrival at the ashram the previous evening. She's lived in Rishikesh one month and tells us she has almost taught this shop owner to mix a palatable coffee. No matter, I think; it'll be tough pleasing a Seattle-latte-aholic. Her directions are easy to follow: exit out the ashram gates, down the gray marble steps, turn right onto the walkway towards the strip of stalls, and head to the second shop on the left we see that's boiling milk.
Our bodies are screaming for caffeine, screaming even louder than the amplified recorded chants and booming gongs that had been set off at 4:00 this morning, startling our bodies to leap up from the dead sleep we'd all fallen into. It had been a sleep delayed until after midnight due to our long day's drive and late arrival here. Ashram residents and townspeople had heeded that call to morning puja (prayer), but the metallic noise of that unexpected screeching had throttled our brains, causing all of our group to claw deep into our beds for any relief. We stuffed pillows, blankets, sweaters, pants, even socks over our heads in failed efforts to deafen the noise and stop the pain. We'd all breakfasted on too many aspirin before finally departing for coffee this dawn.
It's cold and windy this October morning, but we're finally up, our necks craning and turning like wild carnival rides to marvel at what may be to our right, to our left, and around the next bend. How delightful to realize we're really here, though semi-awake, and not still just dreaming of this far-off, exotic place.
Aside from the score of food merchants, as yet this morning there is only one gift shop that's thrown up its heavy metal, garage-like door to display an assortment of bright bangles and baubles and brass décor for sale. We pass without lingering, intent on our caffeine errand and knowing we'll have many days and many shops to choose from in which to spend our rupees.
Finally, we find the chai shop. Hot coffee and tea, an assortment of sodas and waters, packaged biscuits and candies, and rolls of toilet paper round out the offerings displayed over the shop's shelves. It is small, as are all the shops along this narrow alley of an uneven street that were constructed many, many decades before of cement and brick with the added convenience of what must be "standard issue" garage doors. The long, endless bank of them stretching on and on along the avenue gives this pathway the appearance of an auto repair alley. Along this narrow pedestrian route, though, no cars travel.
The hawk-nosed proprietor looks less Indian to me than a resident of Brooklyn. My friends and I call out our orders for coffee in English. The proprietor is boiling milk in black, smudged, aluminum pots bruised from a lifetime of bangs against two ancient kerosene burners and, no doubt, the street. His arms wave and he hollers out long strings of Hindi sounds back at us, which we just nod to.
Hoping he's understood our large order, we look around for a place to sit. Peering over his shoulder, we see four shallow plank wood tables set inside beneath a peeling ceiling. Three already host crunch-shouldered, robed, dark men whose age I cannot gauge. Beyond a narrow archway of the far wall, though, one of our band spots a curtain of gray sky. A balcony? My friends start in.
I step reluctantly into the shop, across the stained floor, and through what my U.S. bred instincts label "dank and unappealing" surroundings. Suddenly, inexplicably, though, some quirk shifts my perspective. In the States, I would have completely avoided any streets like those we've strolled and would never have entered into such an establishment. Yet, something in the adventure of all this is beginning to fend breeding and such concerns aside. All that matters to me right now is that I'm in the holy city of Rishikesh, and there's a chorus of water-drawn thunder — the river? — pulling me toward a whirlpool of cool, sweet air beyond the far doorway. Every seam of my nylon jacket is easy access for the bite of this morning's too brisk blast of wind.
Finally, it's my turn to step onto the narrow cement balcony. Its three waist-high walls are painted an unappealing, oily green smeared with the dirt of its age. Beyond the failing barricade of this balcony is the river whose thunderous song has been calling me.
Some of my companions have already filled the chairs at the far tables. The only other table is occupied by a solitary, sweet-faced holy man with long white hair, whose thin, angular body is housed within a many-layered robe the color of silt. A kindly smile stretches his face wide and lights his eyes, raising an answering beacon from mine. He rises, silently signaling me, and those behind me, to sit. With my hands I sign a bashful "no," but he bows his head and raises his hands in prayered pose, and there can be no refusal to such hospitality.
"Namaste," I say, grateful for a seat.
The table and benches are bare wood, and I throw myself onto one and skoosh to its end against the wall. From here I can poke my head over the low-slung slab wall and set my eyes upon the moving sea of life's river known far and wide as Ma Ganga, Mother Ganga, the Elixir of Life, the Sacred River, and 100 or so other attributes.
Directly across this flood of fast water, which surely must be many hundred yards, sits the other half of the city of Rishikesh. The rising sun illuminates its crush of dappled temple spires, the precariously perched white square apartment buildings and brown-and-bannered-shops, all weathered by the elements to which they are exposed day after day. Upstream, draped and jeweled travelers on foot and riding ox-driven carts loaded with bundles of wood or fruits, fill the Shivanend Jhula, a steel and cement walking bridge linking the banks of this city's two halves whose single seam is the river.
The wind carries an occasional draft of urine my way from somewhere, I hope, far away, and returns my attention to the brackish tint of these unkempt green walls and to my friends. I've turned just in time to accept my cup of coffee from a handsome, bright-eyed boy of about nine years old who's wearing a ripped red and yellow T-shirt too small for his stretching frame. Stained, brown pants are tied around his waist with rope. He is very merry, acts much older than his age, and seems oblivious to the cold that is raising the hair on my jacketed arms.
Someone in our group has done extensive homework about India. She informs the rest of us that large stretches of the 1,550 mile-long Ganga are impassable by boat owing to plantations of boulders and sand banks planted by nature along the way, as well as fluctuating water levels that can trickle through sections of the country thick as cream-muddied oil. I swallow another long draught of coffee whose color, if not texture, matches the picture she's just painted.
She talks of the implications and controversy the building of a dam raised, and, for a second, I'm sorry for not having done more in-depth reading in preparation for the trip; but then a ribbon of chill wind curls around me, and I realize that preparation is like a thick, warm coat that would keep me from experiencing the breeze, and it's best to be free to feel whatever I feel.
My attention strays downstream to the farthest part of the western bank where dozens of buses are pulling onto the sand. They line the riverbank and release multitudes of tourists and pilgrims who've all set their personal sights on being at this river for their own individual purposes.
Far beyond them, flying low over the green-draped hillside, the huge wing-spans of four, now five, now six patient buzzards circle lazily. Their focused presence is evidence that some living thing will soon die.
Beyond anything I see or hear though, I see, hear, and sense the river. The thrusting sounds of this channel's raging waters and the imaginings of my spirit are singing tales in my ears and to my soul of how I'll wander everywhere and nowhere these next few weeks and be happy right wherever I am every moment.
In such a state of wonderment, even the ambiguous coffee begins tasting curiously appealing.CHAPTER 2
Leave Everything You Know Behind
"From the heavenly sea The waters run and flow forward From the never failing springs. In my blood flow A thousand pure springs And vapors, and clouds And all the waters ..."
— from, The Essene Gospel of Peace, Book Two, translated by Edmond Bordeaux Szekely
"Leave everything you know behind."
Mantra-like, these echoing words had swirled through my mind for weeks prior to my departure for India. The music of it had greeted me upon waking each morning, set the rhythm of my steps while strolling through stores seeking mosquito repellent, film, and handi-wipes, and its guidance helped maintain my patience while counting down the days to my departure.
Like moonlit waves listlessly rocking and caressing a darkened dock, this restful tone had lulled me to sleep each evening and carried me into the next dawning day. The song of this message, seemingly risen up from the depths of some great well, or, perhaps, a newly opened music box, haunted my steps, and I wondered what meaning it held for me.
In 1896, Mark Twain had dubbed India "The Land of Wonder." I knew India was considered a holy land, perhaps even the spiritual birthplace of the world. Yet, whenever I'd thought about India, it was images of heat, crowds, a confusion of multiple gods, and abject poverty that came to my mind. Not even the fond feelings elicited from having read Autobiography Of A Yogi as an eleven year old had attracted me to plan such a trip in my later years. So, wondrous as this land might be, India had never been on my Top Ten List of Places I Needed to Visit during this lifetime.
And then ... I was going, and now I am here, and now the mantra has quieted. Prodded by that mantra in the days preceding this trip, I now realize, my psyche had unconsciously released many preconceptions about the way life is or should be lived. I'm glad, because from the moment I landed in New Delhi, I haven't seen a vestige of anything I've ever known, and, as a result of leaving those rules and judgments behind, I have been able to live life more fully aware and accepting.
My first morning in India, I awoke in a grand, old, New Delhi hotel. As soon as I could ready myself, I'd headed down the winding staircase leading from my second story room to the lobby. I was intent on taking a walk around the city despite the voice of warning barking protests inside my head that I wouldn't like it and not to go.
Hooks clawed at me. Hooks of fear. Fear of poverty, disease, getting lost, the unknown, being jeered at as an American/woman/foreigner, being somewhere I didn't belong, inadvertently insulting people whose customs I didn't know. That strident voice snaked around inside me and acted as my private escort down those many carpeted steps. Yet, sunlight poured through the hotel's plate glass double doors, and I could see a wide expanse of green lawn and floral gardens fronting the property. I couldn't resist being outside.
"Leave everything you know behind," I reminded myself, and stepped outside to stand in the city's smog-strained sunlight.
I'd stepped into a world beyond time when I walked past the massive green hedges, thick-leafed palm trees, and iron gates that guarded the hotel. Many days and many miles later on this trip, I'm still happily traversing beyond all confines I'd ever placed upon people and myself prior. It all began with those first steps.
That first morning, I looked up to see flocks of massive birds crossing the sky. Their expansive wings looked the size of runner carpets. It was awesome to watch the designs they flew. A few of them landed on the tall palm trees rounding the hotel, and as they flew lower and closer, I realized these must be condors, and I was awestruck by them. Later that night, someone busted my admiration for the birds by commenting, "Big deal! Condors are just vultures." Something of the romance of those expansive wings and spiraling patterns shriveled instantly for me, and, instead, I remembered that vultures eat the dead.
Trekking the neighboring streets that first morning, many hosting consulates and embassies guarded by serious soldiers bearing serious guns, I viewed a land of ox and horse-driven carts, pedestrians, and sacred cows sharing speedway space on streets overflowing with noisy, three-wheeled motor taxis of uniform black and yellow coloring, a never ending flood of uniformly square, white minibuses, and scooters dented from daily jousting with all these others. The city avenues, thick with the rush of such an onslaught, are stretched from two lanes to four, or even five, by the shear determination of the drivers whose focused, free-wheeling and instinctive maneuvering gets them wherever they want to get in front of whoever is in front of them. Life surges ceaselessly around you in India whether you are ready for it or not.
On my walk that morning, I'd breathed hot air clogged with auto exhaust, and I shared the cobbled or hard dirt sidewalks with those who called them home. Some of the ample, wood-framed and corded rope-beds still hosted the resting bodies of men reading newspapers. In this land where chairs are superfluous to life, people squatted along the walkways to talk or just to wait and sit and see. The water that my U.S. Public Health Nurse had instructed me not to drink ran from sidewalk spigots where those native to this land were brushing their teeth and filling cups for refreshment. Foam frothed the faces of those being barbered at curbside, both barber and customer squatted face to face chatting Hindi while the barber's long blade scratched bristles off cheeks and chins. Taxi drivers hailed me in broken English.
"Shopping? Shopping? I take you good shops," they called out. Spending money, buying things, was the furthest thing from my mind!
In another time and in other places within the borders of the U.S., I have recoiled from scenes less foreign and as poor as these, alternately either baring my fury at the seeming injustice or shielding my emotions and mind from it behind self-erected psychic armor, refusing to hear, see, smell or taste what appalled me. Yet, here in Delhi I didn't see anything I needed protection from. It's as if I'd been released from constraints and opened to be more than just the me I'd known before. In doing that, everything around me took on a new hue and gentler feeling.
Excerpted from Moonlight on the Ganga by Claire Krulikowski. Copyright © 2006 Claire Krulikowski. Excerpted by permission of DayBue Publishing Ink.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Awaking to the River,
Leave Everything You Know Behind,
Candles in the Wind,
Looking Another Way,
Conversations on the Sands of Time,
Seeking Higher Ground,
Down by the River,
The OM of the Cosmos,
Moonlight on the Ganga,